By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
The film that resulted from this production context is very good, even if we may never truly know the truth about the filming environment”
At first glance, to call Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel’s DAU. Natasha ‘epic’ is an understatement: intoxicating performances drive a series of suffocatingly intense vignettes set in a 50’s-era Soviet scientific research institution, peaking with a KGB security interrogation marked by a scene of sexual assault that leaves even the most hardened extreme cinema connoisseur gasping for air. On its own merits, knowing nothing of its production context or the remarkable circumstances of this film’s creation, DAU. Natasha is already an extraordinary, eye-opening feat.
But wait, there’s more. When Eric Kohn at IndieWire wrote about the film in February 2020 upon the film’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, his deep-dive into the project called this project nothing less than “the most ambitious filmmaking experiment in history”. And to be frank, that almost feels like it’s underplaying it. So astonishing are the details of this film’s creation – and, indeed, the broader DAU project which encompasses it – that it genuinely feels like an effort on the part of even just the reader to fully grasp the sheer scale of what is going on here.
So here’s the deal: Khrzhanovskiy burst into the international festival scene in 2004 with his celebrated feature 4. The sixteen years between his debut and DAU. Natasha in the case of another director might suggest a lull in activity, but in this instance, it feels almost too short a time to accomplish what he did here. The legend – and make no mistake, by now the circumstances surrounding the DAU project truly are the stuff of legend – holds that Khrzhanovskiy had the comparatively humble idea of making a straightforward biopic about Lev Landau, the prolific Nobel Prize winning Soviet theoretical physicist who reached his career peak across the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But at some point, the scope of Khrzhanovskiy’s vision changed: in the northeast Ukranian city of Kharkiv, Khrzhanovskiy recreated to scale not just the scientific research institute, but the community in which it was set. What resulted was a 42,000 square foot set where the 352,000 ‘cast members’ lived permanently: they had jobs, earned money, and even were governed by a system or law and punishment, upheld by ‘authorities’ if they stepped out of line.
The film works that have since been spawned from the DAU project resulted initially from Khrzhanovskiy and his crew moving through this ‘community’ and building short stories around specific characters. Some of these had been exhibited previously in London and Paris, but DAU. Natasha is the first fully fleshed out, feature length story to emerge from this radical filmmaking methodology can be seen. On its own merits, it makes for a banger of a film; Khrzhanovskiy was joined on the credits to the film with co-director Jekaterina Oertel who had shifted to the role from the hair and make-up team. But when the bigger picture of how this film was born is taken into account, DAU. Natasha – which recently played at the Melbourne International Film Festival – goes from being an impressive film to something so complex and simply ‘big’ that it’s difficult to articulate.
There’s a dark side to all of this, of course, as many articles about this project attest, and not to make note of this sits somewhere on a spectrum from disingenuous to outright unprofessional: according to one recent report in The Daily Beast, for example, the project has been plagued with rumours of a strong neo-Nazi presence on set and the exploitation – even child sexual abuse – of the ‘cast’ of untrained actors who were involved in the project across the ten years it took to execute. Make no mistake, it is much more than the unsimulated sex and the graphic scene of sexual violence in DAU. Natasha that makes it an ethical minefield when this ‘bigger picture’ is taken into account. If it is at all possible to look at the film objectively without taking this all into account – and frankly, I am unsure how ethically sound that is in this case – objectively, the film that resulted from this production context is very good, even if we may never truly know the truth about the filming environment in practical terms and the moral repercussions of that knowledge when it comes to assessing the film from an orthodox critical position.
Yet when looking at the movie, what stands out above all of this is Natalia Berezhnaya, who plays Natasha herself. Working at the canteen at the science institute, Natasha’s social time seems largely spent with her frenemy, the much younger Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), and taken wholly on face value the electricity between these two women is next level; they fight like sisters (sometimes with aggressive physical force), and speak to each other with a frankness and candour that is usually retained only for those in our immediate family. Olga is young and beautiful and has no problem gloating about this to Natasha, the latter of whom has tried to convince herself that being the mistress of a married man is something she is satisfied with. But after a drunken party with a group of scientists and soldiers after a particularly successful day of research experiments, Natasha finds herself in a lengthy (unsimulated) sexual encounter with Luc (Luc Bigé), a French scientist who has been working with the team.
The bulk of the film tracks the repetitive, almost ritualistic banality of Natasha’s work life, in which her complex relationship with Olga seems to add the only color to her routine. But after her encounter with Luc – a foreigner – Natasha comes into view of the KGB, the film peaking with a gruelling encounter that makes us yearn for the quotidian banality of much of the film’s earlier action. What this brief synopsis elides, however, is the curious sense of detachment that riddles the film throughout. As we see even in the earliest encounters between Olga and Natasha, there is no sense of camaraderie here, there is a total absence of solidarity: here, power reigns supreme, it destroys all interpersonal bonds in a manner more than one critic has compared thematically to George Orwell’s 1984. So unempowered are these characters (or, should we say, ‘characters’) that we quite literally don’t ever really see them properly – if there were any close ups of Natasha I missed them, and the bulk of the film is dominated by medium or long shots. It feels in this sense that the film itself forbids us from getting too close, regardless of the increasing intensity of the scenarios we find these ‘characters’ in.
Clearly these technical decisions are conscious, and it’s hard not to consider the power dynamics of the film’s formal construction alongside the broader way this film was made and the rumors surrounding the less palatable elements to how the film’s massive cast were treated during the DAU project as a whole. What is at stake in both of these aspects are questions of power, of dehumanization, and of a willingness to do anything to survive when coming face to face with an authoritative regime. Whether that authoritative regime pertains only to the narrative of the world of DAU or can be seen spreading into the way the project itself was executed has already been the subject of much press attention. What remains unquestionable, however, is that based on its own merits, DAU. Natasha is quite unlike anything else – for better or for worse.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).